By  on February 8, 1994

NEW YORK -- Despite the continued late buying habits of many retailers, it's shaping up to be a strong spring-summer for dresses and suits, with bookings running as much as 30 percent ahead of last year's.

Retailers and manufacturers agree that short lengths will continue to drive business, with textured fabrics and prints playing an important role. Some also say longer looks are inching back into the picture, mostly in flowing, ankle-grazing dresses and skirts.

Makers say late orders from the stores force them to gamble on stock positions in fabrics and finished goods. Retailers defend their closer-to-the-season buys by noting they are simply following the consumer, who is shopping with a "wear-now" mentality, resulting in stores bringing goods in later.

For this season, however, the complaints appear to be outweighed by the good pace of business, and those retailers with spring merchandise already on the floor have gotten good reaction.

Teresa Tymoski, vice president and general merchandise manager for Henri Bendel, said dress and suit business has gotten off to a strong early start, despite some tough weather conditions.

"We're planning our spring dress business very aggressively based on the excellent early response," Tymoski said. "We've also seen some excellent suit selling out of the box. The indications are there for a strong season."

In dresses, slip and apron silhouettes in short and long lengths have sold well, particularly private-label slip dresses, apron dresses from Leon Max and body-conscious looks from ABS. Tymoski said Bendel's will feature a "major slip dress statement" in its windows this week.

Ensemble looks using jacket and dress combinations are expected to be important as well.

In suits, soft silhouettes from Tahari have done well. Customers are responding to colors such as soft blue and to fingertip-length jackets, Tymoski added.

Ellin Saltzman, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, said, "The little black dress continues to be strong."

Saltzman said short lengths -- ranging from two to eight inches above the knee -- are the predominant look, except for some long and full summer dresses.

Important silhouettes include fit-and-flare, tube, apron and slip dresses, Saltzman said, in black, navy, brights, floral prints and gingham checks. Fabrics such as silk, lace, rayon, cotton, linen and wrinkle viscose have emerged as key elements, she noted."It looks like it's going to be a big dress season, based on the slip dresses in all the major collections," Saltzman said. "But it will be tough to beat last year, when the mini-floral print dresses were such a strong look."

Saltzman also said it's going to be an important suit season, led by the long jackets over short pleated skirts in brights, plaids and navy with silver accents.

"The other look that sort of bridges the gap between dresses and suits is the jacket and dress combination, which looks very good for spring and summer," Saltzman added.

"This is going to be a big dress season," said Benny Lin, fashion director at Macy's East. "Dresses are the number one silhouette of the season. The top looks are tank dresses, A-lines and slip dresses done in crinkle, pleated or smocking fabrics. The lengths are predominantly short, what I would call mini-length. Long only works when done in sheer or flowing fabrics for romantic dresses that are more for cocktail than career."

Color is back in a big way, Lin said, "but white is going to be very strong because people are tired of the little black dress."

Lin said some standout collections include ABS, Cynthia Rowley, Nicole Miller, Leon Max and Laundry.

In suits, he said, the trend is toward softer, looser-fitting hip-length jackets with short pleated or georgette skirts.

"Pantsuits have gained wide acceptance for the career customer, especially long lounging jackets over pajama pants," said Lin, citing George Simonton, Jones New York and Kasper as key collections.

At Lord & Taylor, a combination of short and long lengths is important to customers, said Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising, although much of the buying is in short.

Neutral colors in textured lightweight fabrics are vital elements for the upcoming season, Olexa said.

"It should be a strong season for dresses," Olexa noted. "We just finished our dress book, which comes out March 17, and we feel there are a lot of strong looks."

Among the top trends in dresses, Olexa said, are two-piece looks such as tunics over skirts, dresses with back interest and Empire shapes such as baby-dolls and slip dresses. Top dress labels at L&T for spring-summer will include Tahari, Jones New York Dress, Bonnie Strauss and Cynthia Rowley, whose dress line is being carried for the first time for spring.Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, said the trend in suit jackets is either short to the waist or long to the hip. Skirts that have movement, such as A-line, flared and pleated shapes, are important.

"Pantsuits are very important, especially using surface texture fabrics, tartan plaids and basketweave looks," Kaner said. "Anything with back interest is also important."

Soft dresses in muted prints are expected to be top looks, Kaner said, and sheer -- including silk chiffon and georgette and cut velvet -- "doesn't seem to want to go away."

The good news from vendors is that spring and summer orders have been rolling in, bringing them above plan for the season. Most vendors confirm the continuing strength of short.

"We don't have any long dresses on the line, and we don't have any suits with long skirts," said Elie Tahari, designer and principal of Tahari, Ltd. "The short lengths are what's new, and they're selling very well."

Tahari said early spring selling has been very good, noting strong sell-throughs on a four-ply polyester microfiber coatdress.

In suits, bestsellers include short flip skirts with printed jackets, and novelty detail in soft fabrics such as cool wools and the four-ply polyester microfiber crepe.

Tom Murry, president of the company, said the suit and dress divisions are running about 30 percent ahead of last year, with more early shipments. Each division had a volume of about $15 million in 1993.

Murry said the company is planning to lower the average retail price of a Tahari suit to $300 from $400, and of a dress to $250 from $300.

"We want to expand our volume base, which is the only way to remain profitable," Murry said. "We'll accomplish this by better sourcing and trimming our margins."

Barbara Kennedy, president of the Jones New York Dress division of Jones Apparel Group, said bookings are 30 percent ahead for the season.

"What's selling are classic dresses with special treatments," Kennedy said. "Wedges, wraps and jacket dresses are key categories, in fabrics such as moss crepes, textured gauze, silk linen and polyester microfiber crepe."Knits have also been a strong category, she said, with some good early selling at retail. Some day-to-dinner looks have been added for summer, and early bookings have been good.

Nella Hahn, vice president of the women's division of Augustus Clothiers, said early reorders from catalogs and stores have pushed bookings ahead of last year's timetable.

"We are amazed at how late some of the business is coming in," Hahn said. "We're still making spring samples for some of the department stores. Fortunately, we manufacture in our own factory in Brooklyn, and we take a large stock position in base cloths and novelties, so we're able to turn around quickly."

Hahn said short lengths -- averaging about four inches above the knee and going as high as seven inches above the knee -- are what's selling best, with some full-length skirts mixed in.

"The showroom has been very busy, and considering the deep freeze we've been in, I'm very pleased," Hahn said. "Business is up, but it's difficult to say where the season will wind up because for us there's still a lot of business to do."

Important looks in dresses are chemises, wedges, sheaths and fit-and-flares. Dresses with matching jackets are also selling well.

In suits, short skirts with long jackets are the key look, especially safari jackets and long smoking jackets. Textured fabrics, such as rough linen, and houndstooth and glen plaids are selling well, along with wool gabardine and tropical-weight wools.

Nancy Fabrikant, president of Steve Fabrikant & Co., said A-line is the best shape of the season in dresses and suits. She also said bright colors such as tomato, aqua and turquoise have been moving well because there was too much black, gray and navy for fall.

Fabrikant said her firm is doing one length for dresses and skirts -- just above the knee -- in the firm's mainstay wool and rayon velveen knit. She's planning a 15 percent increase for the season, based on strong early trunk show business, even though stock orders have been coming in late.

Madelaine O'Brien, president of sales for New Classics, said spring-summer bookings are 22 percent ahead of last year's, crediting the younger look given the line by its new designer, Claudia Acevedo.O'Brien, who joined New Classics in October, said the better-price company manufactures about 60 percent private-label suits and dresses and 40 percent branded merchandise. O'Brien had been president of Christine Jaguin, which closed in the fall.

O'Brien sees private label growing in importance in dresses and suits because it gives consumers a "feeling of exclusivity," and separates stores from their competition.

Top looks have been coatdresses, fit-and-flares and jacket dresses, with special trims and details attracting buyers. She said "desk-to-dinner" suits -- classic suits with embroidery and other trims -- have been booking well.

In dresses and suits, "the microwave has caught on," O'Brien said. Lengths being shipped are three inches above the knee and higher.

At YL Dresses, bookings are up about 15 percent, said Richard Gottlieb, vice president of sales. He said bright colors and short lengths are boosting business, with day-to-dinner looks an important element in the collection. Textures such as waffle silk and rayon pebble crepe are mixed with trims such as soutache and embroideries, giving the consumer a better feeling of value and versatility.

It's the first spring for the firm's suit division, which is getting good reaction to looks such as white pantsuits and short skirts with long jackets in novelty fabrics.

At David Bijan Ltd., bookings are up about 25 to 30 percent over last year's levels, said Yael Nazmiyal, a principal and the wife of Bijan, the designer. She said short lengths -- three inches above the knee -- are selling for the New York and Los Angeles stores, but lengths are at the knee for many accounts elsewhere.

Top looks include a viscose pique group trimmed in latticework, and a polyester microfiber crepe group with embroidered collars and pockets.

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